DESCRIBE: The Big D in the I.D.E.A. Strategy for Parenting Challenges (Part 3 of 5)

by Joshua Metz, LCSW

I.D.E.A. (which stands for Investigate, Describe, Empathize and Act), is a parenting strategy that I’ve developed to help parents deal with challenging behavior, episodes of distress, or situations that impact the daily flow of life. With I.D.E.A., parents can be more thoughtful in their approach to their children, be less reactive and more reflective in what they do, and turn what could be just another tantrum or fight into an opportunity to teach your child how to take in a situation, figure out what is going on, look at it from different perspectives, and come to a more informed decision.

Part 1 (click here for the article) summarizes the I.D.E.A. strategy. Part 2 (click here for the article) discusses the first step (Investigate). In this Part 3, I will provide more details about the DESCRIBE step of the I.D.E.A. Strategy.

[Scene 1, Take 1]
Two children (boy and girl) are playing together in the family room. The TV is on in the background, with a well worn DVD of a favorite children’s classic playing with the volume unusually loud. The children, kneeling in front of the family couch, are doing a set up with super hero characters, some of the cushions from the couch, a blanket, a sports car from older sister’s Fashion Five doll set, and the case from a doctor’s kit. The children are talking loudly as they move from planning their play (will the doctor’s kit be the bad guy’s lair or the super hero headquarters?) to trying out how they will “play” their character. One child starts running around the room, hand extended high in the air as he tests outs the cape of his super-flyer. The other child grabs a tissue box from a nearby table and to test whether her super-do-gooder will fit into the “spaceship”. Voices increase in volume, and movement becomes excited. Suddenly there’s a minor crash and some yells, including a cry for “Mom!!!”

The above is a description of what two children are doing. Can you picture the scene in your mind? Now, here is a different way of looking at the same scene:

[Scene 1, Take 2]
Two children (boy and girl) are playing together in the family room. The TV is on, too loud, with that darn DVD playing again! And they aren’t even watching it. Instead they are making a mess of the room: pillows are off the couch and everywhere, their super hero figures are strewn about. They took sister’s car, so that’s a fight waiting to happen. And now they’re running around, yelling and screaming. They aren’t even “playing” anything! This is not constructive. Yup, here’s the yell for “Mom!!!!” I knew this wasn’t good. This play ends now.

Can you picture the same scene with the above description? It’s different, isn’t it. Scene 1, Take 1 is an objective description of what is happening. It doesn’t render judgment about what is happening or what shouldn’t be happening. It simply describes who is there, the setting, and the actions.

Scene 1, Take 2 does describe the same scene, but it is filled with subjective observations and a judgment as to what the children are doing. The TV isn’t on in the background, providing a possible brief distraction or soundtrack to the play. Instead, it’s on too loud and isn’t being watched. The children aren’t planning their play or practicing. They are making a mess and running around without any clear direction. The children aren’t constructing a scene of their own design. They are taking things that they shouldn’t (the couch pillows and sister’s car).

Remember, the “I” in I.D.E.A. You “Investigate” the situation without reacting to quickly. You remain calm, take a few minutes to observe what is happening and gather some facts. You receive the situation as it is unfolding and you prepare to make a measured response to the call for help or your sense that you’re involvement has become necessary. Now it’s time to get involved. If you’ve used “I” to generate your observations and make sure you’re calm and available to enter the room and DESCRIBE what you’re seeing. You enter the room and say something like:

“Wow! There is a lot going on here. The TV is on with your favorite movie again. You’ve got a lot of stuff out. The couch pillows. The tissue box. I see your sister’s car too. It looks like you’re working hard on something. I heard a lot of exciting talking too. And now you need my help.”

What comes next is a response from the children:

“Yeah! We’re playing Super Heroes. We’re making hideouts. But he won’t let me use the car. He said he needs it.”

“It’s not just for girls. I need it because my guy lost his flying powers and can’t get back to the hideout.”

“But I need it for my super hero. She needs to drive too. And they both won’t fit!”.

You add,

“Oh, I see. You’re in there setting up for some play. That’s why the stuff is all around. And the TV is on.”

“Yeah! We need the cushions and stuff. And our favorite song is about to come on, so you can’t turn it off!”

“Oh, so you want the TV on. And I can see that you’re using a lot of stuff in here. And now you both need a car. But there’s only one.

And almost in unison, you hear,

“Make [him]/[her] give it back!”

You know what the problem is and why you were called. In a calm and rational voice you are describing the scene that is unfolding (who is there, what is there, what is happening). And now the kids know that you know a) what they were doing, b) what the problem is from their perspective, and c) what they need from you. You’re in a pretty good position to help. No matter what happens next, you’ve ensured that everyone is on the same page, and all parties have had a chance to add their own two cents.

Now let’s look what happens following Scene 1 Take 2. You’ve already made lots of judgments as to what is going on and what the “problem” is from your perspective. You enter the room and declare:

“What is all this yelling! Why is the TV on and nobody is watching it.” You grab the remote and click off.

“Nooo!” You hear in unison.

“Stop!” you declare, “I’ve had enough already. What is the problem? Why is all this stuff all over the place? And that’s your sister’s car. Did you ask permission?”

The boy responds to the third question. The girl responds to the first.

You answer neither, but decide that whatever it is, it ends now. So you decide that it’s time to do something else. “Ok, time to pick up all this stuff up. Then I want you to go downstairs and play.”

“But we’re not done. We haven’t even started yet!” the children plead.

“Yes, you are. Come on. You’re both fighting. This can’t be fun. It certainly isn’t for me. Now go do something that you both can agree on.”

“But, we aren’t fighting, we’re just…”

“I said enough. Now clean up this room. If you want to watch a movie, fine, but you have to watch it. If not, go do something else.”

“Awww” he says.

“No fair!” she says.

“Sorry, but you should try to get along better,” you say as you leave the room.

In Scene 1 Take 2, action is taken (the TV is turned off) before the actual problem (one car, two super heroes) is even mentioned. The children’s responses to the questions asked aren’t acknowledged. And a decision is rendered and directions given as if there are two different scripts being read.

Benefits to the DESCRIBE step in I.D.E.A.

If you haven’t guessed already, Scene 1 Take 1 describes the benefits of using DESCRIBE within the I.D.E.A. strategy. Let’s look a little more closely at these benefits.

When you DESCRIBE, Things are slowing down. You’re not acting. You’re talking. And the kids are listening. You’ve taken the first step in being involved, and you stand from a position of strength. You’re not in the midst of the melee, but instead surveying the scene from a vantage point that allows you get critical information out to all parties involved: You’re here, you’re calm (this is the essential benefit of the Investigate step – helping you to achieve a calm and more balance state of mind as you get involved), and you’re letting all parties involved know that this is what you are seeing.

When you DESCRIBE, you’re talking about what is actually happening, not what should or shouldn’t be happening. And when you’re describing what is happening, you’re paying attention to any value judgments on what you’re seeing. No assumptions are being made about what is going on. “Would-a/Could-a/Should-a” is replaced with “Just the facts, please”. You’re not judging or dispensing discipline at this point. You’re merely saying what you’re seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching. You’re answering Who, What, Where and When at this point. Why, and the feelings and emotions that go along with this question are saved for the next step of I.D.E.A. (Empathy).

When you DESCRIBE, everyone is turning to the same page. You’re also avoiding the potential pitfall of the same argument and fight. What you’re describing has never been done before, because it’s happening right now. So it can’t be the same as last time.

When you DESCRIBE, each side gets a chance to contribute. You know that once you start describing what’s happening, someone is going to want to add his/her two cents. And you let them contribute, and help them distinguish between what is happening (the objective experience) and how they feel about it (the subjective experience). Remember the old saying “Walk a mile in another person’s shoes”? Well, here it is in action. You’re engaging in the practice of perspective taking, a cognitive function that is important for future executive thinking down the road.

When you DESCRIBE, You’re providing a model for how you want the next few minutes to unfold – with calm, rational voices and a desire to figure out what is going on. Without making any demands, declarations or decrees, you’re letting all parties involved know that this is how you’re going to be acting and it’s how you hope all parties with behave. What’s that old golden saying? Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Here it is too, in action.

When you DESCRIBE, you’re providing much needed time and opportunity for the child(ren) to get a hold of their emotions (which more than likely are running high) and begin using their “thinking” brain to respond to your description of what is happening. Where you as the parent had the opportunity for calming down and reigning in your emotions during the INVESTIGATE step, this is the opportunity for the child(ren) to do the same.

When you use the DESCRIBE step within I.D.E.A., you’re going a long way to turning the tide of a challenging situation with your child. You’re taking control for sure, whether you’ve been called or not for help. But you’re doing it in such a way that creates opportunities for helping your child engage in important developmental tasks that must be practiced in order to be strengthened. And you’ve also set the stage for the next step in I.D.E.A., the important step of showing empathy. But that’s for next month. 🙂

In the meantime, any feedback or comments on this newsletter article or the I.D.E.A. strategy as a whole are welcome and appreciated. You can reach me at